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Friday favourite: How "animal" Zanardi won over Ganassi's number one

Making his CART debut in 1996 after a spell in Formula 1, Alex Zanardi joined Chip Ganassi Racing to become a household name Stateside. Although Jimmy Vasser admitted Zanardi was a little 'reserved' at first, they became firm friends - small wonder that Vasser picked the Italian ace as his favourite team-mate

Alex Zanardi and teammate Jimmy Vasser celebrate a one-two finish for Target Chip Ganassi Racing

As IndyCar racing attempted to pull itself apart in 1996, with the infamous split caused by the formation of the Indy Racing League, the CART World Series side of the deal received its best possible gift: Alex Zanardi.

From the ashes of Team Lotus in Formula 1, and just a handful of BPR GT and Porsche Supercup outings, Zanardi got to test for Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of 1995 thanks to Reynard’s Rick Gorne. Signed up after an impressive run, Zanardi joined Jimmy Vasser – who’d been with the team since the start of that season – for 1996, replacing Team Rahal-bound Bryan Herta.

Vasser started on a hot streak, winning four of the first six races, while Zanardi’s breakthrough win came at Portland in round nine. Vasser wouldn’t win again but his consistency won him the title, 22 points clear of Michael Andretti.

Zanardi, who finished third, truly made his mark with a sensational victory in the season finale at Laguna Seca, when he mugged Herta at the Corkscrew on the final lap with his famed ‘the pass’.

The Vasser/Zanardi double act led to the Italian taking two titles of his own, before he returned to F1 with Williams for 1999, and a life-long friendship was forged.

“He wasn’t just a great team-mate but a great friend,” says Vasser. “He was a comedian too. He was always so fun to be around, even when he was kicking your ass he’d bring a smile to your face and make you laugh. His laughs and jokes… he made life better when you were around him.

Zanardi and Vasser struck up a great friendship as team-mates

Zanardi and Vasser struck up a great friendship as team-mates

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“He was a real animal to watch on the racetrack; I’d call him a lion. From within the team, he was helpful, he wasn’t trying to hide anything. We worked so well together.

“I showed him the ropes when he first came over, especially with the ovals, but even in my championship year, when he could have won it too, he was still very helpful.”

Despite this, Vasser did find Zanardi to be a little reticent at first.

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“Maybe he was a little reserved to begin with, I mean, coming from Formula 1, job number one is to murder your team-mate, right?” laughs Vasser. “It took a little while for him to warm up to the culture of our team. Like most drivers from there I think he realised ‘Well, shit, this is a more enjoyable way of life – to actually have some fun while you’re racing.’”

Zanardi’s life-threatening Lausitz crash in 2001, subsequent racing comeback and success in the Olympics have been overshadowed by the handbike crash that’s left him recovering from severe neurological damage at home in Italy.

“His Olympics success, it was so typical of the man,” says Vasser. “Pre-accident, post-accident, and even today, you give Zanardi a one percent chance of anything, and I’ll put my money on him.”

The Vasser/Zanardi partnership saw the Italian secure two titles of his own before he returned to F1 in 1999

The Vasser/Zanardi partnership saw the Italian secure two titles of his own before he returned to F1 in 1999

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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